Enduring effects of severe developmental adversity, including nutritional deprivation, on cortisol metabolism in aging Holocaust survivors

Rachel Yehuda, Linda M. Bierer, Ruth Andrew, James Schmeidler, Jonathan R. Seckl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Objective: In animal models, early life exposure to major environmental challenges such as malnutrition and stress results in persisting cardiometabolic, neuroendocrine and affective effects. While such effects have been associated with pathogenesis, the widespread occurrence of 'developmental programming' suggests it has adaptive function. Glucocorticoids may mediate 'programming' and their metabolism is known to be affected by early life events in rodents. To examine these relationships in humans, cortisol metabolism and cardiometabolic disease manifestations were examined in Holocaust survivors in relation to age at exposure and affective dysfunction, notably lifetime posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Methods: Fifty-one Holocaust survivors and 22 controls without Axis I disorder collected 24-h urine samples and were evaluated for psychiatric disorders and cardiometabolic diagnoses. Corticosteroids and their metabolites were assayed by gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy (GC-MS); cortisol was also measured by radioimmunoassay (RIA).

Results: Holocaust survivors showed reduced cortisol by RIA, and decreased levels of 5 alpha-tetrahydrocortisol (5 alpha-THF) and total glucocorticoid production by GC-MS. The latter was associated with lower cortisol metabolism by 5 alpha-reductase and 11 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11 beta-HSD) type-2. The greatest decrements were associated with earliest age of Holocaust exposure and less severe PTSD symptomatology. Cardiometabolic manifestations were associated with decreased 11 beta-HSD-2 activity. In controls, 5 alpha-reductase was positively associated with trauma-related symptoms (i.e., to traumatic exposures unrelated to the Holocaust).

Conclusion: Extreme malnutrition and related stress during development is associated with long-lived alterations in specific pathways of glucocorticoid metabolism. These effects may be adaptive and link with lower risks of cardiometabolic and stress-related disorders in later life. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)877-883
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Psychiatric Research
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2009

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Glucocorticoid metabolism
  • Biological markers
  • 5α-Tetrahydrocortisol
  • 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase
  • Child psychiatry


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